Breaking News! NASCAR Teams Form Owners Association! Has CART Returned?!?!
7/7/2014. This may be a day that will mark a change in racing history. NASCAR’s top 9 teams formed an organization called Race Team Alliance. Penske, Ganassi, Hendrick, Stewart Haas, Gibbs, RPM, MWR, Roush, and Childress have all united to form the group. This is a big deal. NASCAR has resisted organization or franchising since its inception. This is contrary to many other forms of racing. These associations are clearly positive for the teams, but whether they are good for fans or the direction of a series as a whole is much more debatable. What is going on in NASCAR is unclear. The RTA claims to be after nothing more than improving the sport, increasing marketing, and streamlining costs. Rob Kauffman, co-owner of Micheal Waltrip Racing was elected as President of the Race Team Alliance, and in an interview claimed that fans should welcome RTA. Perhaps. But a look at the history of racing and team owner organizations is troubling to say the least.
Most infamously CART was organized in 1979. CART saw Indycar rise to unprecedented levels of popularity while at the same time squeezing out American drivers, ovals, and smaller teams. CART and IMS CEO Tony George fought an infamous power struggle which brought down American Open Wheel Racing. After Unification, team owners again stretched power which has resulted in everything from the firing of innovative, fan focused CEO Randy Bernard to the elimination of double file restarts. Drivers and team owners have increased their power in Indycar, and many of their decision are not necessarily helpful in creating an exciting product for fans.
MotoGP has two organizations, the IRTA for the teams (generally speaking non-factory teams) while the motorcycle manufacturers has the MSMA. These two groups are not as infamous as CART, nor are their decisions so wholly destructive. Yet rules out of these two groups still can be troubling, and give a ton of power to motorcycle manufacturers irregardless of whether these rules are good for the series as a whole or fans. Examples such as the various rules about electronics, tires, and bike specifications exist. Even when not destructive, the process of sharing power between these organizations, Dorna, and the FIM leads to more politics and simply more time in making decisions. Formula One teams formed an association called FOTA in 2008. This organization nearly caused a Split in Formula One, though its power waned considerably and the organization dissolved this season.
NASCAR’s history with organization was more focused on preventing a drivers union than a team organization. Two key attempts at organization were create in the early days of NASCAR. 1961 saw the attempted formation of a drivers union with some involvement of the Teamsters Union. Curtis Turner was a driving influence in the creation of the Federation of Professional Athletes which saw many drivers join. The union’s most enthusaistic supporters were given lifetime bans while Bill France Sr. also created the Grand National Advisory Board to give some voice to others. The FPA failed as everyone involved left, and the drivers given bans (greats such as Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, and Fireball Roberts) were all reinstated. Eventually.
1969 saw a new organization brought into existence. This time the movement to create the Professional Drivers Association was led by Richard Petty. Key issues included insurance and pension for drivers. No one was suspended this time, but conflict flared up over Talladega. Tire issues at Talladega caused most of the drivers to seek a postponement. Bill France Sr. would not allow that. 32 drivers boycotted the initial race at Talladega. The race went on however, with many drivers in what is now the Nationwide series (then Grand National) filling in. 1970 saw the introduction of a rule which said that any car entered into the race would have to race, regardless of whether the initial driver did or not. In 1973 Richard Petty left the drivers organization which then collapsed. Thus ended any sort of power sharing agreement in NASCAR, at least until now.
I am not saying that massive conflict will happen in NASCAR. I am not saying a Split is imminent. Or a boycott, or anything of that sort. Clearly, everyone at this point knows that a “Split” would be incredibly destructive. Yet the risk is there. With team owners looking for more power, and NASCAR famously jealous in its guardianship of said power, conflict seems likely. NASCAR’s response to this was short. Yet the timing of this announcement right after Brian France’s mid season State of the Sport is telling. Until more details come out it we can only speculate on the goals of RTA and NASCAR. But it seems to me to imply some serious dissatisfaction with the current state of NASCAR.
So what if there was a “Split” in NASCAR? Again, I am not saying this will happen or is likely to happen, but what if? The teams would only be able to do this if Bruton Smith’s SMI joined with them, or at least let them race on SMI tracks. As such RTA would have at minimum Bristol and Charlotte as marquee events. They would also have Vegas, Kentucky, Loudon, Sonoma, Atlanta Motor Speedway, and Texas Motor Speedway. Interestingly enough SMI also owns North Wilkesboro Speedway though it would need updates. NASCAR would race at all of the ISC tracks as well as NASCAR owned Iowa and DMG controlled Road Atlanta and Sebring. Whether NASCAR would continue to run SMI tracks is hard to say, but it is decidely unlikely RTA would be allowed into any NASCAR controlled tracks.There are a number of independent tracks which could swing either way, or run both. Pocono, Indianapolis, Dover, Gateway, Milwaukee and Nashville most notably. If a Split were to happen it also might mean more road racing in NASCAR. From Nola to Road America, Montreal to Mosport, Mid Ohio to New Jersey Motorsports Park, a lot of potential road courses are out there, and in a desperate situation might be able to get a NASCAR and/or RTA race. RTA includes Roger Penske, who of course promotes the Belle Isle street race for Indycar. Could an RTA series use street courses as a way to make up for the loss of ISC tracks?
The possibility and power of a Split would depend on if all the RTA teams left together. If they did, and if they took all of the drivers with them then NASCAR might be in some trouble. As it currently sits what would NASCAR have left? Would fans stick around if the stars went to another racing series? NASCAR would have the Daytona 500, but is it enough to sustain the series? On the other hand could RTA survive without Darlington, Daytona, or Talladega? For television, the most successful way for RTA to position itself would be to get back on the ESPN team. Were that to happen ,and RTA to have the full power of Sports Center on their side, NASCAR would be in considerable trouble. All of this is purely hypothetical and unlikely to happen, but it is an interesting thought experiment.
Could positive developments come out of the Race Team Alliance? One thought some people have is that the RTA may mean more of NASCAR’s television and sponsorship money given to the teams. Revenue sharing and franchising could be a positive move for NASCAR. It could reduce ride buying, improve parity, and stabilize the lives and livelihood of drivers, pit crews, mechanics, and all of those whose living depends on racing. On top of that NASCAR is going to have many of their races on Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports starting next year. This may have a dramatic affect on the television ratings. Indycar ratings dropped incredibly when they moved from ESPN to NBC Sports. If that happens to NASCAR there will be some significant issues with sponsorship for teams. This would make revenue sharing even more vital for the survival of the several teams. The other hope with RTA is that it really does lower costs and help get more teams or at least more cars to races. Though the history of cost savings in racing is filled with failures, perhaps RTA will help push NASCAR along to a successful path. Certainly, NASCAR has a number of serious issues. Fans are disappearing, and engaging younger fans and non-traditional NASCAR fans has been an incredible struggle. RTA claims to want to focus on marketing so perhaps a new approach is what NASCAR needs.
The Race Team Alliance could have any number of results. It might even be much ado about nothing. But it does make me a bit uncomfortable. I’ve seen too much in Indycar over the last four years to really feel good about seeing team owners get more power. If nothing else, lets have a moment of silence for Randy Bernard, the Indycar CEO removed by Indycar team owners. I certainly hope RTA either has no effect on NASCAR, or has a positive one. I just can’t shake the feeling that the NASCAR world will never be the same again. Whatever happens, and whatever you think will or should happen, this is a story that should be followed closely by anyone interested in racing.